The value of social history

In Family History, social history on July 28, 2014 at 8:16 AM

Grandma and grandpa 1938

In the course of my dissertation research, which is looking at how student perception of history education changes when family history research is incorporated into curriculum, I’m finding little real scholarship on the pursuit of social history here in the US. Broadly defined, social history is the accounting of historical events from the perspective of common people (oh how I dislike that phrase), more specifically what I like to refer to as the ordinary folks like you and I who have lived extraordinary lives. This is not to say that one perspective is more accurate or valuable than another; clearly understanding WWII from a military perspective is critical to understanding the war at all, but so too is understanding the civilian experience during that period. How did the mothers and fathers and children interpret the conditions of their lives during that time, what was their understanding of the events and did they even talk about it?

Of course it should be noted that there are a few very good social history projects being conducted in the US; the American Social History Project at the Center for Media and Learning at CUNY is doing incredible work engaging young students and the general public. Likewise the Center for Oral and Public History at CalState Fullerton, one of the best in the country, is also doing incredible work engaging young students and the general public. What seems to be missing though is real deep work on the connection between family history and social development. I have to wonder why. Of course it is clearly understood that Roosevelt (FDR) was responsible for very important policy during some of the bleakest moments in American history and understanding the political nature of those policies is important to understanding the history of the period. But so too is the perspective of my own grandmother, who used ration cards, raised four children alone after the far too early death of my grandfather, and forged a life on the foundations of those policies. Her perspective, added to the others, brings depth to our understanding. So, where is the scholarship? If you’ve found some, I’d love to know. Leave a comment. But more importantly remember, you should be Saving History…because your story is priceless.


  1. I love this! You are so right, there just hasn’t been much done to study social history. I know that there was a large study done at Indiana University years ago (no, I’m not talking about the Kinsey Institute!) regarding the habits and lifestyles of several “fringe” immigrant populations coming to settle. Believe it or not, it was kinda interesting. But for we the “common” people, it’s up to us.

    • You are right…it is up to us. Unfortunately getting the stories down often turns into something we are going to “do soon” and too often never get to. How many of us have boxes of memorabilia from deceased relatives? You know there are tons of stories on those boxes, answers to family questions, and connections never made. We should all be Saving History…because our story is priceless.

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